Last night, Barack Hussein Obama, Jr., addressed a joint session of Congress in his last State of the Union address. Like most of these, this performance was an infomercial for the American political establishment and a chance for everyone to pretend they are all in the same boat. Yet as the president noted when he promised to make this speech shorter than its predecessors, many in his audience were in a hurry to get back to Iowa to campaign to be his successor. Despite this general phoniness, there were a few points that stood out as genuine.
First and foremost, the campaign of Donald Trump represents an un-American movement of fear and hate that needs to be defeated. The American public is angry, apparently saving the world from the economic disaster of 2007-08 has not happened fast enough. Blaming immigrants, the poor and the unpopular doesn’t really work in a nation so many different ethnicities, but there is a die-hard George Wallace bunch that haven’t read the memo. Mr. Obama simply pointed out that Mr. Trump is running a campaign that is contrary to the basic values of the nation.
Second, America’s right has convinced the public that the current bunch of terrorists posing as Muslims somehow represent an existential threat to the US. This is, of course, complete bovine excrement. The only threat to America’s continued existence remains the nuclear arsenal under Moscow’s control, and Moscow doesn’t seem to be interested in using its nukes against the US. Mr. Putin may be a vicious gangster, but he isn’t suicidal. The frustrated young men who are riding around the Middle East in pick-up trucks with machine guns on them are a threat to individual lives, but the idea that they can somehow undermine America’s survival is plain dumb. Mr. Obama said so in more polite terms.
Third, America does have the capacity to do great things. Mocking the climate change deniers, he pointed out that when the Soviets put up Sputnik, the nation didn’t deny it was up there. Instead, America put its scientific community on a war footing and within 12 years had Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. His new ambition is to cure cancer (probably a harder scientific prospect than a moon landing), and he has put Vice President Biden in charge of it. He also mentioned defeating malaria, and that would be astonishing as well as much easier that ending cancer. The private sector is not going to do these things; a government moonshot program is needed. Mr. Obama implied that government has a role to play in scientific research.
Fourth, the American political system doesn’t work anymore. The polarization of the country’s elected officials has ensured that the checks and balances designed by the founders are now permanent blockades preventing most action that is needed. He opined that part of the problem was gerrymandered Congressional districts, and to a degree, he is right. Most districts are not competitive, and politicians have drawn boundaries in such a way that they get to choose their voters rather than the other way around. He lamented that, unlike, Lincoln or FDR, he lacked the political talent to work across the aisle with Republicans as he would have wished. In truth, both Lincoln and FDR had working majorities in Congress.
Finally, though, what Mr. Obama brought up was that the United States of America is not as united as it once was. For reasons demographic, historical and ideological, American voters are set against one another in a way that makes democracy in the country a zero-sum game. As one commentator noted, Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine, has been told by colleagues that they can’t be seen to be working with him for fear of reprisals at the ballot box back home. In a parliamentary system, this would be less of a problem. But in America’s deliberately divided government, it is a recipe for disaster.
What Mr. Obama didn’t say, but probably should have said, is that the American people have only themselves to blame for the ineffectiveness of their government. If one wants government to do a million and one things (and clearly that’s how everyone votes regardless of ideological bent), one must fund it, one must compromise with others and above all, one must believe that governing is actually possible. Perhaps, it’s time for the American people to grow up.